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On the road to Petersburg: notes of an officer of the C. S. A.


So June wears on in this good or bad year 1864, and our friend General Grant is leaving Cold Harbour for a “new base,” I think.

He has had a hard time of it since he crossed the Rapidan, and we also; fighting in the Wilderness, (I came near “going under” there); fighting at Spotsylvania Court-House (our Po is more famous now than the classic stream of Virgil); fighting on the North Anna, a maiden who stretched her arms between the fierce combatants and commanded the peace; fighting on the slopes of Hanover, when that Indian girl, the Tottapotamoi, did the same; and then fighting here, how fiercely! on the famous ground of old Cold Harbour, where the thunder of the guns has seemed to many like an echo of those guns of McClellan, which made such a racket hereabouts in June, 1862, just two years since!

A good many things have happened since that period, but we remain more faithful to our first loves than the blue people. Then the Federal commander-in-chief was called McClellannow he is called Grant. The leader of the South was then called Lee, and Lee is his name to-day. But each seems to have a constant, never-faltering attachment for the “good old place,” Cold Harbour, just as they appear to have for the blooming parterres of the beautiful and smiling Manassas! The little affair near Stone [510] Bridge, in July, 1861, was not sufficient; again in August, 1862, the blue and gray lovers of the historic locality must hug each other in the dear old place! “Malbrook s'en va-t en guerre,” to the old tune on the old ground!

The game is played here for the present, however. Every assault upon the Confederate lines has been repulsed with heavy loss, and Grant has evidently abandoned any further attempt to storm them; he is moving toward James river. The fighting has been heavy, incessant, deadly. Wind, rain, sunshine, heat, cold, nothing has stopped it. But the Southern lines have stood intact; so the war goes elsewhere. It is escorted on its way, as usual, with a salute.

This morning a decided racket is going on. Boom! boom! whiz-z-z-z! pow-w-w-w! there is a shell which has burst near me. Won't our friends across the way permit an inoffensive Confederate to smoke his pipe in peace, without disturbance from these disgusting visitors? I have just dined on an infinitesimal ration, and am smoking peaceably when my reverie is thus invaded. That shell, which in bursting has raised a little cloud of dust, might have hurt me; it has interrupted me. Why do they fire so high, and why at me? I am not a general.. My flag is not up. I am not even fighting to-day. I am smoking, and indulging no sort of spite against anybody. I am thinking of some scenes and faces an enormous distance from this spot, and am, in every sense of the words, “off duty.” It is pleasure, not duty, which enthralls me. Recreation, not work, is my programme for the nonce. Respect, my friends, the rights of a neutral and noncombatant!

The cannonade continues. They are having a hot artillery skirmish yonder, but I go on smoking without much excitement thereat, being used to it. The time was when we fought pitched battles once or twice a year, killed each other all day long secundem artem, and then relapsed into gentlemanly repose and amity, undisturbed save by the petite guerre of the pickets. At that remote period, the present elderly, battered, and unexcitable warrior, used to rush “to horse” at the first roar of the cannon; for the roar in question preceded a general and decisive engagement, [511] in which every man ought to be “on hand.” Now we have changed all that, or rather the enemy have. Once, under McClellan, they seemed only bent on fighting big battles, and making a treaty of peace. Now they seem determined to drive us to the last ditch, and into it, the mother earth to be shovelled over us. Virginia is no longer a battlefield, but a living, shuddering body, upon which is to be inflicted the immedicabile vulnus of all-destroying war. So be it; she counted the cost, and is not yet at the last ditch.

All that talk about immedicable wounds and last ditches has diverted me from the contrast I was drawing between the past and present. Then, I meant to say, I always started up at the cannon's roar, expecting a decisive battle; now, so incessant and so indecisive is the fighting, I lie under my tree and smoke, and dream of other scenes, scarcely conscious that those guns are thundering yonder, and that many a brave fellow is uttering his last groan. Thus we harden. Do I think of “those blue eyes?” Well, the comrade dying yonder thinks of the pair he knows. Poor fellow! then I return to my reverie.

The war grows tedious; carnage bores one. “Bores!!!” This is, I think, about the fortieth day of fighting. We had the “seven days battles around Richmond” in 1862. Is this campaign to be the “seventy days battles around Virginia?” The game keeps up with wonderful animation; guns roaring, shell bursting, and listen! that long, sustained, resolute crash of the deadly smallarms! Suddenly it stops; but a good many brave fellows have “gone under” in that five minutes work. This takes place at all hours of the day and night. Grant keeps “pegging away.” Today he seems to gain something, but to-morrow Lee stands like a lion in his path, and all the advantage is lost. We continue to repulse every attack along the bristling lines, as in 1862. Grant ends where McClellan began; upon the ground at least. We hold our own. “Lee's army is an army of veterans,” writes the correspondent of a Northern journal; “it is an instrument sharpened to a perfect edge. You turn its flanks; well, its flanks are made to be turned. This effects little or nothing. All that we can reckon as gained, therefore, is the loss of life inflicted on the [512] enemy, and of having reached a point thus near the objective, but no brilliant military results.” Candid and true. They lose more heavily — the enemy-than we do, but our precious blood flows daily. Poor Charley —! A braver soul was never born into this world than his; and, since something happened to him, he has been quite reckless. He is dead yonder, on the slopes of Hanover, fighting his guns to the last. And that greater figure of Stuart; he has fallen, too! How he would have reigned, the King of Battle, in this hot campaign, clashing against the hosts of Sheridan in desperate conflict! What deathless laurels would he have won for himself in this hurly-burly, when the war grows mad and reckless! But those laurels are deathless now, and bloom in perennial splendour! Stuart is dead at the Yellow Tavern yonder, and sleeps at Hollywood; but as the dying Adams said of Jefferson, he “still lives” --lives in every heart, the greatest of the Southern cavaliers! His plume still floats before the eyes of the gray horsemen, and “history shall never forget him!”

There was Gordon, too-alive but the other day, now dead and gone whither so many comrades have preceded him. He fell in that same fierce onslaught on the enemy's cavalry, when they tried to enter Richmond by the Brook road, in that sudden attack which saved the capital. “I blamed Stuart once for his reckless attack with so small a force as he then had on so large a one as the enemy's,” said a most intelligent gentleman of the neighbourhood to me not long since; “but now I know that he proved himself here, as everywhere, the great soldier, and that he thereby saved Richmond.” And the gallant Gordon! how well I knew him, and how we all loved him! Tall, elegant in person, distinguished in address, with a charming suavity and gaiety, he was a universal favourite. Of humour how rich! of bearing how frank and cordial! of courage how stern and obstinate! Under fire, Gordon was a perfect rock; nothing could move him. In camp, off duty, he was the soul of good-fellowship. His bow and smile were inimitable, his voice delightful. He would present a bouquet to a lady with a little speech which nobody else could approach; and, at the head of the “Old first” North Carolina cavalry, he would have charged McClellan's massed artillery at [513] Malvern Hill. We used to tell him that his rapid rise to the rank of General was the result of his “personal, political, and pecuniary position;” but that alliterative accusation was only a jest. He won his rank by hard fighting and hard work; he gave the South all he had-his time, his toil, his brain; she demanded his life, and he gave that, too, without a murmur. Peace to that brave!

These memories seduce me. I am getting triste-blue. I do not like blue, having so many disagreeable associations connected with it; I prefer gray. Blue eyes and blue skies are exceptions, however. I differ with General Henry A. Wise, who said to me once, “I like a gray day.” Hurrah for the sunshine, and up with the flag that has “Vive la joie!” for its motto. We need all the sunshine and gaiety that is attainable, for whatever may be thought of our friend General Ulysses Grant's genius as a soldier, he allows the gray people very little time for relaxation or amusement. I think McClellan is the better general, but the present generalissimo does “keep pegging away” with unusual regularity! There is another roar; but the artillery fire has slackened. Now the sound is heard only at intervals. The desultory “woodchopping” of the sharpshooters comes from the woods and gradually recedes. Grant is moving.


We strike tents, shoulder arms — I do not, I only buckle on a sabre — cross the Chickahominy, and take up the line of march for the James river-hungry.

A tedious march down the right bank of the “Swamp,” into the low grounds of Charles City, everywhere facing Grant; line of battle; fighting on the long bridge road; men throwing up earthworks with their bayonets in twenty minutes, whenever they stop; sun rising and setting; wind blowing; woods reverberating with shots; column still moving toward James river. Then the question is settled; General Grant is going to try the Petersburg line of advance on Richmond, with his base at City Point.

Judicious! General Lee said a year ago, I am told, that this was [514] the quarter from which Richmond was most exposed. That terrible question of our “communications” --the Southern railroads! After all, it is bread and meat which will decide this war, or rather, I am afraid, the want of it. The granaries of the Gulf States are full, and we are starving. Who is to blame? History will answer that question. The time will come when the survivors of this army, or their children, will know why we are left to starve upon a microscopic ration--“so-called” --of meat, which just enables a man to carry a musket and cartridge-box without staggering and falling upon the march, or in battle, from exhaustion! Some day we will know that; meanwhile we go on starving, and try to do the work. Close up!

Over James river above Drury's Bluff-not “Fort darling,” nobody ever heard of that place — on pontoons. The artillery moves on all night; I and the most amiable of Inspector-Generals bivouac with saddles for pillows in a clover-field. We have just passed an ancient-looking house, but seeing no light, forebore from arousing the lady of the establishment, preferring to sleep al fresco, by the camp-fire. Yonder, through the gloaming, as I lie on my red blanket — from Chancellorsville — with feet to the rail fire, and my head on my English saddle, as I smoke — not after supper-yonder I see the old house. It is not a very imposing place. Set upon a handsome hill, amid waving fields, above the James, nearly opposite the Randolph house of “Wilton,” it would be attractive in “good times.” But now it is pulled to pieces and dust-covered. For the cannon of the Army of Northern Virginia have rolled by the door hour after hour, and the trampling hoofs of the cavalry have raised clouds of dust, hanging on the trees and walls. House, out-buildings, fences (broken down), grass-plat, box-rows-all disappear under the cloud. Dust is king there. We drop asleep with rosy visions; for, in passing the house, an Ethiopian friend named Richard, who subsequently kindled our rail fire for us, promised us breakfast. We rise at dawn, repair to the establishment, make our toilets (I always carry soap, brush, and towel in my haversack), and are shown into the drawing-room, to which the ladies have not [515] descended, though they have sent polite messages touching breakfast.

It is with real historic interest that I gaze upon this old mansion. For this is “Ampthill,” the former residence of the famous Colonel Archibald Cary of the first Revolution — the man of the low stature, the wide shoulders, the piercing eyes, and the stern will. He was of noble descent, being the heir apparent to the barony of Hunsdon when he died; sat in the Virginia Convention of 1776; lived with the eyes of his great contemporaries fixed on him — with the ears of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason, listening to hear him speak, and was the sort of man who will “stand no nonsense.” When the question of appointing Patrick Henry Dictator was agitated, Cary said to Henry's brother-in-law, “Sir, tell your brother that if he is made Dictator, my dagger shall be in his breast before the sunset of that day!” There spoke “Cary of Ampthill,” as they used to call him — a man who religiously kept his word, saying little and performing much. Hardest of the hard-headed, in fact, was this Ampthill Cary, and his contemporaries nicknamed him “Old iron” therefor. He played a great part in old timeshe is dead in this good year 1864, many a long day ago-but this is his house. Looking around at the wainscoted walls, the ample apartments, and with a view of the extensive out-buildings through the window, I come to the conclusion that those old Virginians had a tolerably good idea of “how to live.” Here is a house in which a reasonable individual could be happy, provided he had a pleasing young personage of the opposite sex to assist him. Woodwork to the ceiling; wide windows; trees waving without, and green fields stretching far away to the horizon; pure airs from the river fanning the cheek, and moving gently the bright plumage of the singing birds perched amid the rustling foliage-Cary of Ampthill must surely have been a gentleman of taste. Is that him yonder, sitting on the porch and reading his old blurred “Virginia Gazette,” containing the announcement of the proposed passage of a Stamp Act in the English Parliament? That must be “Old iron.” He wears ruffles at his breast, [516] knee-breeches, a coat with barrel sleeves covered with embroidery, a pigtail, and a cocked hat. His shoulders are broad, his frame low, lhis eye piercing-and I think he is swearing as he reads about the doings of parliament. He has apparently just returned from inspecting the blood-horses in his stables, and after taking his morning julep, is reading the Gazette, and pondering on the probable results of secession from England, with the sword exercise which is sure to follow. But look! he raises his head. A gun sounds from down the river, reverberating amid the bluffs, and echoing back from the high banks around “Wilton,” where his friend Mr. Randolph lives. It must be the signal of a ship just arrived from London, in this month of June, 1764; the Fly-by-Night, most probably, with all the list of articles which Colonel Cary sent for-new suits for himself from the London tailors (no good ones in this colony as yet), fine silks for the ladies, wines from Madeira, and Bordeaux, and Oporto, new editions of the “Tattler,” or “Spectator,” or “Tom Jones,” all paid for by the tobacco crop raised here at Ampthill. The Flyby-Night probably brings also the London Gazette, showing what view is taken in England of the “rising spirit of rebellion” in the colonies, and what the ministers think of the doctrine of coercion. Our present Governor, Fauquier, is not wholly “sound,” it is thought, upon these questions, and Lord Dunmore it is supposed will succeed him. A second gun! The Captain of the Fly-by-Night seems to have anchored at the wharf, and the swivel, announcing his arrival to his patrons, is making a jolly racket. Again!-and there again! Bomb! bomb! bomb! bomb! Can that be the Fly-by-Night, and is that Mr. Randolph galloping up in hot haste from the ferry opposite “Wilton?”

It is a courier who stops a moment to tell me that the Yankee gunboats have opened below Drury's Bluff, and are trying to force a passage through the obstructions. So my dream is broken; I wake in the every-day world of 1864; the year 1764 has quite disappeared; and Cary of Ampthill — where is his figure? That is only my friend, the amiable Inspector-General, on the porch, reaching a copy of the Richmond Examiner. I took his looped-up felt for a cocked hat, and his officer's braid for the ante-revolutionary [517] embroidery! So the past disappears, but the winds are blowing, and the cloud-shadows float just as they did one hundred years ago. The fields are green again, the river breeze comes to me with its low sweet murmur, and the birds are singing in the trees as they sang for Cary of Ampthill.

“Gentlemen, will you walk in to breakfast?”

O most prosaic-but also most agreeable of announcements! The past and its memories fade; we are again in the present, as the most agreeable of odours indicates!

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